The history of Peru has been intertwined with the search for gold well before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. Gold was a highly sough after metal by the Incas and they revered it as the sweat of the sun and believed that it represented the sun’s regenerative powers (Episode 73 – Inca Gold Llama, 2021). With the arrival of the Spanish, the search for gold in Peru intensified as the Spanish conquered the Inca Empire and laid claim to its gold and silver riches. Today in popular culture we associate Inca gold to lost treasures in the jungle or the fabled city of El Dorado.
The search for gold in Peru is nothing new, but today a new gold rush has emerged in the Amazon jungles of Peru and everybody, from small miners to large exploration companies, seems to be vying for a piece of the action. With the price of gold passing US $1,700/ ounce, gold miners have swarmed the Amazon rainforest and bringing with them an environmental catastrophe (Bergen, 2021). The economic crisis of 2008 accelerated the price of gold, and as the price of gold has gradually increased ever since, so has the desire of people for striking it rich in the Amazon Forest. With poor farmers in Peru earning as little as $50 a month, the incentive to become an illegal artisanal gold miner in the Amazon is very alluring. According to recent research, more than 170,000 acres of rainforest have been destroyed since 2013 after thousands of poor people made their way to the Madre De Dios region in the Amazon Rainforest and started digging and panning for gold (Gaworecki, 2018).
Mining can be a very beneficial activity for people and whole communities when it is done in a well regulated and environmentally responsible way. Mining creates well paying jobs and helps to develop communities. But when there is a lack of regulations and absolutely no environmental oversight, the benefits of mining are soon outweighed by the damage that it creates, which in turn helps to perpetuate the distrust that most communities have for the mining industry.
The problem with the way mining is being conducted in the Amazon right now is that miners are not exploiting gold veins, but instead are collecting gold flakes from the ground, which means that they are doing large scale deforestation, stripping the land of vegetation, scooping up river sediments and using toxic mercury to extract the gold (Gaworecki, 2018). All that is good from the land is being removed and in turn a landscape of polluted soil and water is left behind. In addition to this, there is a whole plethora of other problems that have come with this gold rush, such as human trafficking, drug trafficking, money laundering, attacks on indigenous reserves, etc.
The Peruvian government is trying to prevent this type of illegal gold mining in the Amazon Rain Forest, but its attempts might be too little, or the problem already too big. The government is trying military intervention, including trying to remove the town of La Pampas, the largest illegal mining town in the region (Robin Blades, 2021), but illegal miners just migrate to other sites and start over. The government is also trying increased patrolling of protected zones, arresting of illegal miners, and even the use of satellite technology to find areas in the forest where illegal mining is taking place, but they always seem to be one step behind the miners.
The combination of high gold prices, increased rural poverty due to the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, and almost non-existent government presence in the Amazon Rainforest are all the perfect combination for increased illegal mining activities in the region. Hopefully, the Peruvian government will be able to keep up the fight against this type of environmental destruction and find a better way to regulate mining in the region.
Bergen, T. (2021, 03 08). InHabitat.com. Retrieved from Devastating gold rush in Peruvian Amazon rainforest as seen from space: https://inhabitat.com/devastating-gold-rush-in-peruvian-amazon-rainforest-as-seen-from-space/
Episode 73 – Inca Gold Llama. (2021, 07 10). Retrieved from BBC – A history of the world: https://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/about/transcripts/episode73/
Gaworecki, M. (2018, December 27). Pacific Standard. Retrieved from HOW SMALL-SCALE GOLD MINING IS DEVASTATING THE PERUVIAN AMAZON: https://psmag.com/environment/how-small-scale-gold-mining-is-devastating-the-peruvian-amazon
Robin Blades, P. M. (2021, 07 10). The extent of illegal gold mining in Peru. Retrieved from The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/pictures-from-outer-space-reveal-the-extent-of-illegal-gold-mining-in-peru-159416